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Thursday, 12 August 2010

Roma Turn To The Media In The Struggle For Civil Rights In Europe

Isabela Mihalache
Isabela Mihalache is a sociologist and philologist. During a career as a human rights activist, the 31 year old Masters graduate has worked for a non-governmental organisation in Romania and as a consultant for the Council of Europe and the Open Society Institute. She is also a woman of Roma origin.

The order of Ms Mihalache’s biographical details is important. Ideally, her ethnicity should count as an incidental feature in a lifetime of achievement. She is all too aware however, that her Roma identity carries disproportionate significance.

As a face of the promotional film for the 2010 Roma Women Conference, which took place in Athens last January, Ms Mihalache hopes to challenge the clichéd and often negative perception of Roma people.

“We want to show a different face of Roma women, beyond the stereotypical image,” she says. “We want to appeal to people in a different way.

“We play with the stereotypical images of what Roma women represent by wearing traditional costumes and at the same time showing that the same people have careers and are as 'normal' as other people.

"I like to play with symbolism. It's an incentive for people to listen.”

Ms Mihalache, the deputy director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre, is happy to work with the media which she nonetheless accuses of fuelling centuries-old injustice.

“The media has a big responsibility to give equitable balance,” she says. “We are seen as an ethnic group, different from others. We have always been scapegoats of different interests

“There's no way you can avoid the stereotypes. Roma are portrayed as not wanting to work, living off social welfare, stealing, begging on the street and are not seen behind a desk, working with a computer.”

“I was not told when I was born that I was a Roma. I was told by other people that I was a gypsy. I always had a strong sense of who I was but I did feel awkward. You feel things can always turn in a wrong direction. You always have to be ready and prepared.”

As a 14 year old school girl, Ms Mihalache took refuge with neighbours while a mob in her home region of Constanta, Romania, attacked a Roma family in a nearby apartment. Marked by a childhood during which she was treated with suspicion even though her father was a local councillor who sought mayoral office, Ms Mihalache now uses her media profile to add momentum to the Roma community’s fight for full civil rights.

After two decades of success in winning over Europe’s political elites, activists now seek “full implementation” of citizenship at national level. That means greater political representation, the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and improved access to employment, healthcare and education services.

“There are rights and obligations but once I am not acknowledged as a citizen, what responsibilities and obligations do I have?” asks Ms Mihalache.

“We are citizens of our countries but we have never been seen as such. I see problems with the state not taking its responsibility seriously to address the problems Roma are facing. The effect is what we see on the street - people feel free to act upon their beliefs."

These fears are encouraged by worsening levels of resentment and violence towards Europe’s 10 to12 million-strong Roma community.

However, Ms Mihalache remains optimistic about the outcome of the struggle for full citizenship but warns that it could be derailed easily by indifference and official neglect in favour of other priorities.

She adds: “We are working in the right direction but at this point we are not getting the right reaction. This is a test of European politics.”

Viewpoint: Europe's Roma Apartheid
Podcast: Romaphobia 2010

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